We are at a critical time for gender equality in Australia. We are seeing shifts we never would have seen a decade ago, such as an increasing focus on the achievements of women in sport and the recognition of domestic violence as a workplace issue. In the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Gender Gap Report, Australia ranked number one for educational attainment. Yet that same report ranked Australia 46th for overall gender equality due to low levels of economic participation and political empowerment.1
Incorrect assumptions are being made about the progress of gender equality both in Australia and internationally. A 2017 global survey found that 62% of Australian men agreed with the statement ‘Women have equal opportunities to men in the country where I live’, compared to 48% of women.2 These misconceptions signal the need for an increase in our efforts and priorities.
Since commencing my role as Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner in May last year, I have personally met with more than 1,000 people across the country. I asked them to comment on my initial priorities for gender equality – women’s economic security, violence against women and women in leadership. They did. And they also shared many more insights that will make a difference to how I approach gender equality over the next five years.
It was particularly striking to hear women’s stories – always moving and often outrageous. Women are not one homogenous group. Each story was different, each experience unique. Discrimination is not always experienced because of one attribute such as age, disability, gender, sexual orientation or race. Sometimes it is the intersection of attributes that leads to the experience of discrimination. We create women’s programs or a program for people with a disability, as though you have to choose one identity. In reality, we heard these programs often do not meet the complex needs of individuals.
I identified common themes through my conversations. Some of the issues raised we were already well aware of: gender inequality in economic security and leadership and violence against women. Other issues raised were equally concerning, yet have received less attention. In this document, I have chosen to focus on these unheard stories and experiences. I wanted to reflect the voices, the concerns and the solutions I heard. This does not mean I did not hear and note the many other stories or that I will not continue to strive for equality for all women. In fact, it is because I am committed to all women that I share my insights in this way. Too often ‘women’s issues’ are cited as though we all share the same experience.
Individuals, communities and organisations are innovating and creating solutions at a grassroots level. In my role, I want to amplify their voices and ideas, advocate for the policy changes needed, raise awareness of the barriers to gender equality and explore ways we can overcome them together. I will focus on prevention and response to gender inequality in Australia, across multiple settings. In collaboration with Government and workplaces we can achieve policy, practice and cultural change. In collaboration with communities we can shift general attitudes and with individuals I remain committed to empowering women to understand and exercise their rights. Capturing women’s voices will underpin my ongoing work with university students, work on improving data on domestic violence homicides and inquiries into sexual harassment and discrimination.
I am optimistic about gender equality in Australia. The insights in this document are not all ‘doom and gloom’. In each consultation I have heard about the ingenious ways individuals are working to overcome structural biases and unhelpful stereotypes in order to improve opportunities for women and girls. Again and again I witnessed tremendous resilience from women overcoming the entrenched obstacles to their progress and men stepping up beside women to advance gender equality.
I want to thank the many people I consulted. It was an absolute privilege to hear and learn from you. I acknowledge the significant and inspiring work of the organisations and individuals who are working to achieve a more gender equal Australia. I look forward to working in collaboration with you in the future.